Navio to clone Apple's iPod DRM

iPod-compatible downloads for all?

iPod compatibility could come to a host of online music and video shops besides Apple's own iTunes Music Store, if US-based start-up Navio has its way.

The company this week admitted it is working on a way to allow third-parties to support Apple's FairPlay DRM system without first licensing it from the Mac maker. That would open the gates to allow the likes of Napster and Yahoo! Music to sell iPod-friendly songs in addition to their existing Windows Media-based catalogue.

Navio is reverse-engineering FairPlay, company COO Ray Schaaf told website Playlist this week. Navio sells media-oriented DRM-enabled e-commerce services, and it's looking to iPod compatibility to drive interest in its offerings.

The tactic is an entirely legitimate one, but it's unlikely to win the company any friends at Apple. In 2004, RealNetworks launched Harmony, an app that converts usage rules embedded in its own Helix DRM technology into a form compatible with FairPlay, in order to allow its Rhapsody music service subscribers to transfer downloaded songs to iPods.

Apple made some bellicose noises at the time, but its efforts to prevent Real from selling iPod-compatible downloads were ultimately limited to a FairPlay fix that broke Harmony. Real responded with a fix of its own, and Rhapsody subscribers have since got their iPod support back. Not that it actually matters - ITMS is far more popular than Rhapsody, and arguably Apple might have been advised to keep quiet and not provide publicity for the rival music service.

Either way, Harmony doesn't appear to have harmed Apple's iPod and iTunes sales, which are up to 30m units and 600m downloads, the company said this week.

Will Apple take a more relaxed view of Navio than it did with Real? Possibly. Even if Navio successfully reverse-engineers FairPlay, it still has to persuade companies to launch online content stores based on its technology. Unless it wins the support of a major ITMS rival, its impact on Apple is moot, and Apple can always tweak FairPlay to throw a virtual spanner in the works. ®